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On opposite coasts, two political stars are rising

March 06, 2007|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. — They appear to have little in common, these two governors.

One is a pumped-up, Harley-riding movie star with a taste for Hummers, Armani suits and the Kennedy clan. The other is a rail-thin wonk with a perfect LSAT score who is far more comfortable jousting over budgets than making small talk.

One threw a $2.4-million party to celebrate his most recent electoral victory, an event televised nationally and paid for by big business. The other marked his win with an austere public meet-and-greet as corporate lobbyists fretted that his election would diminish their clout.

One is a Republican, the other a Democrat.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer share more than an Austrian lineage. (Spitzer's grandparents were from the old country.) Both have an appetite for big issues and big challenges. And both hope to leverage landslide victories in November -- and the public's affinity for their ambition -- to transform the role of state government in public life.

And as they barrel ahead on issues that Washington can't or won't address -- global warming, universal healthcare, stem cell research -- both are prodding balky Legislatures to act.

"I don't think we are moving with any greater speed than is called for by the circumstances," Spitzer told a gaggle of reporters in Brooklyn, a couple of whom questioned whether he understood that the deliberative process involves, well, deliberating with lawmakers.

Spitzer has stepped into a national spotlight on state governance that until recently was directed almost entirely at Schwarzenegger. Like California's governor, he came into office with a larger-than-life profile, having gained glory as the hard-charging state attorney general who took on Wall Street.

Before bumping into each other at a White House reception last week during a national governors conference, the two had talked only once, in a brief phone conversation in January.

"It was after he hurt himself," Spitzer said in an interview in his Manhattan field office. "I told him I was ready to take him on the slopes."

At the White House event, they chatted about the potential for launching policy initiatives together. A spokesman for Schwarzenegger said they agreed that doing so "could be good for the country." They made plans to talk again soon.

"New York is an extremely important state. California is an extremely important state," Schwarzenegger said in a recent telephone interview. "If we can form a partnership from the East to the West, that will rub off on other states."

Spitzer, for his part, says there is much to learn by looking west -- especially in these early days of his administration, when it's easy to overplay the hand dealt by a big win at the polls.

Spitzer is already at loggerheads with legislators bent on bringing him down to size. And he doesn't pull punches himself, calling the New York Legislature -- rated in one academic study as the most dysfunctional in the country -- an institution regarded as "slow, loath to make tough decisions, hidebound, overrun by lobbyists and which has taken the state in a direction that hasn't been terribly productive."

It wasn't long ago that Schwarzenegger was similarly frustrated.

"I've watched what happened in California," Spitzer said. "Gov. Schwarzenegger came in and tried some things. They didn't work necessarily. He redirected the ship, and he seems to be doing stupendously now. There are many lessons you can take from it."

Spitzer's agenda is ambitious and in some ways familiar to Californians: provide healthcare to uninsured children and adults, fund stem cell research, invest big in infrastructure, overhaul the way state aid to schools is doled out and restructure the property tax system.

Forgive him, he says, if he is in a rush. Like Schwarzenegger, he is fed up with the federal government. So Spitzer is doing what he did as an attorney general: finding ways to use untapped powers entrusted to the state.

"The whole country knows we are going through a time of stalemate and dysfunctionality in Washington," said David Gergen, who was a senior advisor to former Presidents Reagan and Clinton. "When the economy is working well but the federal government can't get anything done, there is room for creative governors to step up. Both are doing so boldly."

Before moving into the governor's mansion, Spitzer was hailed as perhaps the most effective state attorney general ever. Time magazine tagged him "Crusader of the Year." He famously exposed Wall Street firms that were systematically skewing their stock market analyses to benefit big corporate clients.

As governor, he has to work with naysayers in the Legislature. He can't just haul them into court.

Schwarzenegger's advice to the New York governor: Try not to lose your cool.

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